Not going gently into that good night

I’ve been thinking a bit about the ways in which I am not now, and have never really been, a physicist.

Einstein was a physicist. His Gendanken experiments (which involved thinking about physical objects doing physical things in a space our minds have evolved to handle reasonably well) famously – or so we are told – led in part to special and general relativity. These theories seem to do a good job describing how a bunch of hot and cold balls – planets and stars and such – interact with each other in the big universe. Clearly it falls short of perfection, for it allows for, and in so doing predicts, singularities. They’re bad. Differing opinions are wrong.

On the other side of the 20th century physics coin is quantum mechanics. Long before its inception Joseph-Louis Lagrange devised elegant equations and methodologies for describing the dynamics of physical systems, like bouncing balls, and even planetary balls and stars, and such. So elegant and powerful were Lagrange’s ideas that they easily weathered the storm of quantum ideas, and ultimately the elementary particle zoo to which they gave birth. One can not study QM and HEP without encountering a Lagrangian or ten.

All of this is “physics” in a deep sense, as all these notions rest on methods that are useful in describing the dynamics of bouncing balls. QM may take the balls and spread them out in very non-intuitive ways, and evolution has evidently not equipped us to think about such matters clearly, or even rationally, but the mathematical methodology used to describe these bizarre physical systems can also be used to describe the motion of a bouncing ball. It’s all very physics-y. We connect with it. It’s somehow, shall we say, bosonic.

In a perfect world – universe – all particles would be bosons. Of course, we wouldn’t exist in that case, but that merely heightens the perfection of the purely bosonic universe. But less than a century ago this bouncing bosonic perfection was upended by the need to introduce fermions into the mix.

Many of the things that make sense to our ape brains, at least when thinking about bosons, completely befuddle the ape when thinking about fermions. Equations used to describe bouncing bosons do not apply to fermions.

To bring fermions into the fold required the introduction of the Dirac algebra, Dirac spinors, and the Dirac equation, exploiting mathematical methods that are decidedly not of the bouncing ball variety. In a sense, Dirac theory was the least physics-y theory of the last century. But very quickly ways were developed to incorporate Dirac’s mathematical objects into Lagrange’s. And all was well. Our ape brains were happy, and from that point onward treated this intrusion of fairly pure mathematics into the comfortable world of bouncing physics as a fluke.

Maybe that’s too strong, but the science media, when it turns its focus to TP, concentrates on the mysteries of black holes, and the weirdness of quantum entanglement. Needing eyeballs to stay in business, they frequently use both of these phenomena to hypothesize the possibility of time travel, or warping to a distant part of this universe – or even into another. Zounds! (Look, mom, I’m a hologram!) Let me see that article! This is huge – or at least it will be for the next 15 minutes.

But that’s all bouncing ball/ape brain pop science. We like it. (Hell, I like some of it.) What we, the people, do not like is your nerdy abstract Dirac theory. We spit on it – ptui.

And yet, of all the brilliant notions to which the 20th century gave birth (other than Duchamp’s toilet, of course), none is even remotely as important as the Dirac spinor, and all the mathematical machinery surrounding it. But ape brains short circuit when thinking about this stuff – spzzzt crackle spork. “Nerds! I want to hear more about worm holes and entanglement!”

Sigh. And this is why I am not a physicist. My thinking does not follow a line from Lagrange (or Newton) onward, it starts with Dirac. As a consequence, over the last 50 years, my failure to understand the intellectual motivations of physicists has been profound. Worse, I even didn’t understand that I didn’t understand.

My published research in some fundamental sense arose out of a desire to make sense of, and generalize, Dirac spinors. A lot of this research is just pure mathematics, but nearly all of it was focused on that one goal. (It goes without saying – or, no, it doesn’t go without saying, which is why I feel the need to say it – but personally I am quite happy with the progress I made, ending with a hyper-spinor that includes leptons and quarks and all their antiparticles, and their internal symmetries, and resting on extremely elegant mathematics. Resonant mathematics, as I like to call it. Anyway, it’s cool. So cool.)

But, ok, so big deal. These ideas did not catch fire, either because they’re misconceived (chortle), or for the reasons outlined above. In truth, during the decades of work on the hyper-spinor the reaction of the mainstream was often to douse it liberally with fire retardant piss. Well, I’m not a physicist, and that’s their prerogative, and during those decades of pushing that work into publication I had little choice but to allow myself to be pissed upon, and to encounter this antipathy with counter arguments as best I could. Still, although frequently unpleasant, the effort did lead to a publication or two.

But whatever demons drove me to that sometimes self-destructive obsession have mostly left the building. I no longer publish anything that would require me to deal with, and respond to, antipathetic bile. Which is why I have elected to have this blog be comment-free. So why do I bother? Well, I love writing. And in the words of Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Ignoring is Bliss

Let’s review. In 1962 Thomas Kuhn came out with a book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If you’re unfamiliar with the thing, well … moving right along. Actually, as I have not read it, well, you know, it’s no big deal. It’s one of those books I feel I understand just from the title … and maybe a book jacket blurb … but it doesn’t take much. And to check that my complaisance is warranted, I went to Wikipedia. There I found a summary, but one written in a more stilted style than I felt necessary, so here is my rewrite, summarizing the voyage from normal science, to paradigm shift, and beyond, where all men and women have gone before, because they can’t bloody help themselves.

Normal Science – Resistance is futile; obedience is mandatory. Given the absence of any reason to question the dominant paradigm, if you do not already have an established career, but aspire to have one, then do not question the authority of the keepers of the holy flame.

Extraordinary Research – Oh, fuck, who ordered that? Anomalies accrue. Think a car windshield in the morning after a night of freezing rain (data inconsistent with dominant paradigm). On the assumption the vehicle was left out all night, its windshield is now useless.

Adoption of a New Paradigm – Obviously the only course of action open to the theoretical researcher is to break the windshield and replace it with a new paradigm that is not made unusable by a layer of anomalous ice that prevents any view into the future.

Aftermath of Scientific Revolution – The new windshield in place, everyone settles back into the lowest energy state (Normal Science), and the old windshield, when mentioned at all, is done so with an air of insufferable superiority over the old farts who for years felt it was sufficient, and resisted its replacement. New farts rule!

So, 1962. Theoretical physics (TP), and many other sciences, were popping at the time. The TP revolutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were crystallizing into a form that would withstand just about everything the experimentalists could throw at them. What to do.

Here’s the problem. Think back to the revolutions in the art world beginning, say, with Monet, and going as far as Picasso. Old paradigms of what art meant were being augmented with new techniques and styles, to the displeasure of many. But the needs of the old farts were ignored, and the young turks achieved fame and glory. A paradigm had shifted … but what paradigm? For many the takeaway of this 60 year revolution was that revolution for revolution’s sake would lead to fame and glory for anyone “brave” enough to continue shattering paradigms. But in this context the ideas of Kuhn do not readily apply. The paradigms that broke in the world of art were like windows: you can only break a window once. (Not to be confused with the windshield mentioned earlier, so make it a locked door. You can only unlock the door once.) But the need to be perceived as a young turk overthrowing tired ideas – and the glory to which this would lead – was overpowering, with the result that a toilet was presented as a work of art. And in fact you’ll find a picture of that toilet in most books on the history of modern art; and not because it was in any sense groundbreaking, but because the art critics saw their futures wrapped up in this now avalanche of need to be considered cutting edge. The “artists”, and those who wrote about their “art”, had conspired together to create a fantasy world of nouveau kitsch. Ok, wait. That’s not right. It’s too organic to be labeled a conspiracy. It’s a phenomenon akin to a plant growing in the direction of the sun. Still …

The point is, there are parallels in the story of TP. Instead of Monet, we have Maxwell, and we replace Picasso with Dirac. As to the toilet, I would proffer the annoyingly persistent notion that observation – and even specifically human observation – is required for the collapse of a quantum wave function. (If you have a better toilet, use it.) And for sure the science media, and the ideas and practitioners about which they write, organically collude, together seeking out the sunshine of secure funding sources.

However, unlike the art world – at least I think it’s unlike – TP is viewed as working towards a goal. (Older and wiser (or at least crankier), I am no longer convinced that this goal is achievable, nor even that we would recognize it, were the TOE given to us on a silver platter by some really really advanced extraterrestrial intelligence. Oh, and by the way, they – the ETs – did give me bits of it, and these ETs are neither green nor grey; nor do they have the slightest interest in probing anyone’s anal passages.)

So, yeah, where was I? Right – so, there is one other parallel between the art world and TP: the erroneous takeaway from the successes of the past that being a young turk was all that was required to get an invitation to Stockholm. This lesson was reinforced by decades of such invitations being handed out from its inception in 1895, up to some time in the 1970s when the standard model (SM) was effectively complete. Since that time (Sabine’s 40 years), we’ve had GUTs, SuSy, strings, loops, WIMPs, axions – in short, a cornucopia of “Hey, look at my new idea … over here … no, it’s really great … look, look, mommy!” ideas promoted as passages forward beyond the SM.

Does any of this constitute Extraordinary Research, a la Kuhn? Is it based on the need to address accrued experimental anomalies? Well, not really. It was just busy work while the contestants waited for the LHC – if not to provide evidence that their shots in the dark were on the mark – at least to provide some juicy anomaly that they could sink their teeth into.

Anyway, I and others have beat this dead horse sufficient for the nonce. The LHC shut down, and the contestants raced away. Meanwhile the media have jumped on every Bigfoot sighting that could open a door to extending the SM. As my own work explains exactly the SM, I have little faith that the next out of focus picture of Bigfoot will prove The Chosen One.

I know I’ve said that – as far as TP is concerned – we now live in uninteresting times, but it’s worse than that. We now live in mushy times, times in which the notion of verification by consensus and similarly mushy ideas are taken seriously, promoted in support of old paradigms. We are locked in Normal Science, and getting beyond that may entail little or nothing more exciting than a slow drift away from where we are.

On your marks; get set; go!

Ok Boomer … STAR WARS!

In which the author strains to stay coherent

Like most of my generation, I missed Woodstock, an event frequently submitted as a pinnacle of the Boomer era … but then we screwed it up at Altamont – fucking California … Mediterranean climate, but compared to the French Riviera and Italian Liguria, so angry. No calcium in their drinking water; that’s the problem. And furthermore, um … wait … hmm, I got sidetracked. La la la … hold on a second. Let me reread. Woodstock – check; didn’t go – check; touted as Boomer high point – check. Right, right. So, ok, yeah … but in particular, it was a high point for elder Boomers, someone 21 plus or minus 5 in 1969.

1969. Woof. That was 51 years ago. I mean just think, if you’re 21 now, 1969 is really ancient history. In 1969, 51 years prior to that WWI was just ending, a war in which, at least initially, horses were still used in battle. My father hadn’t been born. Crikey. Ok, sorry. Focus – focus.

Of course, now, 51 years after Woodstock, all Boomers – the elders and the not quite so elderly – have for many years been inundated with floods of exhortations to join AARP and get that annual colonoscopy. The Boomer luster has tarnished. Even their children are likely over 30, so untrustworthy according to their own tenets. Still, we’ll always have Woodstock.

But I won’t, and not merely because I didn’t attend. Even had I attended, I would not really have been in attendance. I am not a party-hearty type, nor one prone to absorption into mass euphoria or hysteria. North Korea will never be asking me to join in on their pre-Olympic ritualized, synchronized dance routines. (Just imagine: 499 people all bizarrely doing exactly the same thing at the same time, and person 500, in the midst of all that, sitting on the grass reading a book. Decaf cappuccino, s’il vous plait. The mind boggles. They’d send me to their version of a gulag for sure.) There’s a spectrum sometimes mentioned that I am on, and if you know what I mean, then enough said. Consider, I saw Jimi Hendrix in concert at Newport, RI. But I drove myself, watched in a solitary manner, then slept alone under the stars that night, a feast for mosquitoes.

What does all this have to do with Star Wars? So far it appears to be semi-rational rambling, akin to speaking in tongues. The lede; where is the lede? Someone get a shovel.

In which the author establishes his bona fides, finally

Still, for someone like me, a math/physics geek and science fiction nerd, there was an event in May, 1977, that surpassed any dream I might have had about Woodstock. (Ok, I admit it, I didn’t have any dreams. I didn’t really care.) I was a student at a Boston area university at the time. Six months prior to May, 1977, I saw an ad in the Boston Globe (probably) about a movie called Star Wars due out in the spring. My Geist registered this information in a very indelible fashion. It wasn’t much of an ad, and it didn’t make much of a splash, but it didn’t have to.

There are many university towns in the world, but I maintain there is no place in the world with the density of colleges and universities one finds in the greater Boston area. Harvard; MIT; Tufts; Northeastern; Brandeis; UMass/Boston; Babson; Bentley; Emerson; Regis; Wellesley; … This is just a few. (At one time I taught mathematics and/or physics at 7 of these institutions, and managed to find a wife at one of those.) Boston is a university city. Naturally, with so many largely high quality institutions, and so many of those excelling in the sciences, my Geist was not alone in registering the coming of The Force. But here’s the thing – a thing that even having experienced it I find mind boggling – I mean, in this age of billion dollar sci fi movies, what happened on May 25, 1977, was truly remarkable. What the hell am I talking about? Ready?

On May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened, showing in 32 theaters nationwide. 32. California, New York and New Jersey accounted for 14 of those 32, leaving 18 theaters for the remaining 47 states of the union.

In New England, a region with 6 states, one of which is Massachusetts, the capital of which is Boston … in that whole region, on opening night, it showed in one cinema, The Charles Street Cinema (Sack) not far from Boston’s North Station. And 2 hours (or was it 3?) before the 7 o’clock show, every sci fi fanatic in the area was sitting on the floor of the cinema’s lobby, tickets in hand, waiting for the theater doors to open. I was one of them, and my life was about to change.

In which the author’s life changes

The hours on the floor waiting were unlike anything I’d ever experienced. There was excited chatter all around me, and some very creative paper planes cruised the lobby for nearly the whole time. I know I said I’m not easily absorbed by mass hysteria, but this was different. Surely you see that. These were people far more my kin than the muddy rock fans at Woodstock. Hysteria was oozing into my mind. I was excited. And then the doors opened, and we all streamed in.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but most of those present likely had a better idea, being more fervent fans of the genre. Some had likely been discussing the upcoming event in small clusters of likeminded friends. If I had likeminded friends, it never occurred to me to discuss the film with them, and on the night I went alone.

So, anyway, the lights dimmed, but the chatter did not abate, and would not throughout the film. This was ok. Booing, hissing, and cheering – it all belonged. And then that amazing script rolls into space giving us some context, followed by a spaceship fleeing something. It is being fired upon. It was all so cool. And then the enemy ship starts to come into view, making an ominous rumbling noise – which of course it wouldn’t have in the vacuum of space, but physics be damned. That was cool too.

Gosh, that ship is big. And we still couldn’t see the back end. And it kept emerging onto the screen. Holy mackerel, it’s huge. So unbelievably cool. But it wasn’t done; it was much bigger still, and by the time it could be seen in its entirety, my mind was breathless.

Boooo! Darth Vader’s first appearance, breathing with threatening severity. Hiss, boo! And then down on the planet, what are those? Jawas. And their big tractor thingies are scruffy. I don’t think I’d ever seen a sci fi machine before that wasn’t gleaming, shiny, and appearing fresh off the sci fi assembly line floor. Everything was scruffy, and looked used … so cool. Even the heroes were scruffy, which is sort of how you knew they were heroic. The Empire’s demands of sartorial nattiness were strict and labeled them right off as anal hardliners. For that, if for nothing else, they needed to go down.

Anyway, you get the idea. Super cool movie, unlike anything I’d ever seen, and a super cool crowd, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I wanted to experience it again. It was like surfing. If you’re halfway decent at the sport, every good wave well caught produces a kind of addictive euphoria that you want to experience over and over.

Which explains why, as I drove across the country that summer (which may have had something to do with physics), I saw the film again, and again, and … a total of 7 times more. I remember especially Denver, and somewhere in California. I so desperately wanted that feeling again – that first night with excited über-nerds feeling. Alas, …

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

In Denver and California, and everywhere else I went, the crowds of fellow attendees, relative to that I encountered in Boston on the first night, were lumps. Had they been Star Wars characters, they’d have been crowd extras seen in a distance doing indiscernible things.

This was an important life lesson. Unlike good waves well ridden, for which there is always a realistic hope of repetition, the Boston first night experience was unrepeatable. Woodstock was unrepeatable. And the 1960’s film Ocean’s 11 was unrepeatable, despite a lame attempt by movie moguls 40 years later to recreate the chemistry and pizzazz of the original. Hollywood! Am I right?

So, … sigh. That’s why I feel I am entitled to share my opinion about what happened in the ensuing 42 years. So pay attention.

(Holy crap on a stick … it took 42 years to complete the 9+ film saga? Think of all the early fans who died before the final film. Hmm.)

In which the author’s dreams are fulfilled, then shattered

3 years. It took 3 years before the Empire struck back. That was a long wait, but worth it. Then another 3 years before the Jedi could have their turn at bat. Again, good film, so while not condoned, the wait was eventually forgiven.

And then there were umpteen years before the prequel films, numbers 1,2,3. The original three films, now 4,5,6, took place later in that galaxy far far away. And here’s the thing, where I really start getting to the point of this diatribe: relative to 4,5,6 I remember very little of films 1,2,3.

So … 1,2,3. Something about trade wars (yawn); and some weird alien bureaucrats working for the wrong side of said trade wars, and they had accents that sounded, what, Japanese? Hard to say. And then there was Jar Jar with his pseudo-Jamaican (?) accent. He was painful to watch, and even the Jedi who interacted with him did so with a patronizing forbearance that was also painful to watch. And the spaceships – all gleaming, shinier than Star Trek. Even the heroes had lost their scruff.

In short, Star Wars was being destroyed, beaten down beneath the steel toed boots of The (Hollywood) Empire.

Still, hope remained while we waited for episodes 7,8,9. Hard to say where it would go since the evil baddie of 4,5,6 had died in 6, and the galaxy partied and celebrated like nobody’s business. He’d been a good baddie, sitting ominously in a big ass sci fi throne seat, full of obnoxiously sinister overbearing confidence that he would win.

So, umpteen more years pass, and finally we get episode 7 … or wait, was that just episode 6 with a different title? Big ass sci fi throne – check; sinister baddie filled with overbearing confidence that he would win – check; sinister henchman with black helmet and black flowing robes – check; yet another version of the death star – check; plucky band of rebels fighting against the odds – check. They ripped off everything fine and wonderful from 4,5,6, to that point the only good Star Wars films.

I was there in 1977 that first night in Boston. Did I mention that? This new film was a travesty, as bad as episode 2 of Highlander. You can’t just keep throwing sinister baddies at us speaking down from their big ass thrones with annoying evil certainty. What’s the point of rebelling if every time the rebellion succeeds Evil just restarts the game with a new evil tyrant? Why not just let the Empire win, choosing the least bad evil guy they throw at the galaxy?

In which the author has a plan to defeat The Evil Empire

Ok, episode 8 was not without merit, and now episode 9 has come and gone, and opinions are varied. Palpatine, the evil emperor who dominated 1-6, and “died” in 6, only to be replaced in 7,8 with his uglier twin … anyway, in 9 he was back. Many people felt this was an annoying and disappointing cheat. We saw him die. Still, my biggest disappointment was Palpatine’s successor, #2 of what one could only assume might be an infinite sequence of badness in big ass thrones. So, when it turned out #2 had been “constructed” by Palpatine, and that there had only been one big baddie all along, I was relieved. Palpatine gets vaporized in #9, rebels wash hands, done. Sequence finite.

Meanwhile, in the midst of waiting for 7,8,9 to play out a film appeared that was also a prequel to 4,5,6. Rogue One was actually really good. So good, in fact, that I have a plan, simply stated.

1. Throw out 1,2,3 and merge into one film that I personally might find memorable. This will require a total rewrite.

2. Rogue One should be number 2.

3. 4,5,6 should be 3,4,5, but modify 6 (now 5) so that Palpatine’s survival makes sense.

4. All copies of 7 should be destroyed.

5. The killing of Han Solo was pathetically undramatic. Stop trying to recreate the “No, I am your father” moment. Nobody is buying it.

6. Merge 8,9 into one film. If you must, make it 3 hours, but make me personally derive enjoyment from it. Consult me frequently throughout the process of re-creation.

7. Keep ALL moguls, Hollywood power players and bureaucrats out of the loop. Send them to North Korea … in perpetuity. Get some creatives that understand the wonder of 4,5,6. Do it right, like Serenity was done right.

8. And for gods’ sake, make Ahsoka Tano part of the story, central to the new episode 1.

So there you have it, my Star Wars rant. I was there the first night in Boston in 1977, so …

And it just occurs to me that the entire history of Star Wars coincides precisely with the years during which theoretical physics wandered aimlessly in a decades long stretch of Empire dominated fruitless speculation. In the real world the Empire wins, and the rebels are shunted off to gen-ph. Let that be a lesson to you.

I was there the first night …

May you live in interesting times

“May you live in interesting times.” When I first heard this phrase I understood the “interesting times” it referred to were times of upheaval and disruption, but I assumed that was a positive thing. It didn’t occur to me that the saying was meant as a curse, and in the majority of human occupations – farmer, merchant – I suppose it is. But it needn’t be. A century ago, there was riotous upheaval taking place in both the Arts and Sciences (you really should watch the documentary, Paris: The Luminous Years). Surely a great many of the staid and hidebound were discommoded by the revolutions taking place in the Arts and Sciences, but those revolutions gave us the modern world, and a deeper understanding of ourselves and the universe we inhabit. My thoughts on those times are very positive, but I am a disruptor, so it is understandable. I am reminded of this quote by Graham Greene:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

So, yes, revolutions took place, and in particular in theoretical physics (TP). Modern day practitioners of TP – those who are disruptors by nature, as well as those who are not, and may presently be resisting further disruption with every fibre of their being – are united in their admiration of those century old ideas and those who gave birth to them. Few of those who resisted those advances are much remembered, which makes it easier for present day resistors of new ideas to avoid identification with their predecessors. But they are the same, and they too ought not be very much remembered.

Still, they might be. Let me explain.

Sabine (Hossenfelder), a practitioner of TP and vigorous blogger about its shortcomings, recently posted a blog with the title: Why Physics has made no Progress in 50 Years (since toned down to 40). She says:

Instead of examining the way that they propose hypotheses and revising their methods, theoretical physicists have developed a habit of putting forward entirely baseless speculations. Over and over again I have heard them justifying their mindless production of mathematical fiction as “healthy speculation” – entirely ignoring that this type of speculation has demonstrably not worked for decades and continues to not work. There is nothing healthy about this. It’s sick science. And, embarrassingly enough, that’s plain to see for everyone who does not work in the field.

This behavior is based on the hopelessly naïve, not to mention ill-informed, belief that science always progresses somehow, and that sooner or later certainly someone will stumble over something interesting. But even if that happened – even if someone found a piece of the puzzle – at this point we wouldn’t notice, because today any drop of genuine theoretical progress would drown in an ocean of “healthy speculation”.

Why don’t physicists have a hard look at their history and learn from their failure? Because the existing scientific system does not encourage learning. Physicists today can happily make career by writing papers about things no one has ever observed, and never will observe. This continues to go on because there is nothing and no one that can stop it.

(Of course, it being highly unlikely she is aware of my own TP efforts, I can happily conclude that she does not include me in her excoriations.)

So, anyway, this differs little in intent from my own ranting, save that Sabine believes that there is a solution. As this would involve a fundamental change in human nature, I do not share this belief. You know, I wasn’t going to write another screed about the failings of TP; I wanted to write about science fiction, and Star Wars in particular, but then I made the mistake of reading Peter’s latest, which arose in response to an article by Misha Shifman. Misha says:

Standard Model is still unchallenged: today no observed natural phenomena require its expansion.

That, of course, doesn’t mean efforts won’t be made to expand it, such “healthy speculation” generally involving the introduction of new forms of matter (axions, etc.), or the application of new mathematical methods (string theory, etc.), but nothing in all the reams of experimental data accumulated over the last century points to a clear path forward. Misha continues:

What should happen for today’s HEP theory to reincarnate itself? It is not clear to me. It seems that I see a renewed interest in this endeavor among bright young people. Hopefully, it is not wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, more traditional HEP physicists do not hibernate. The routine work goes on unabated, people work hard to polish the ideas that had been put forward previously. Theorists revisit corners which were ignored on the previous journeys.

This is all moderately annoying to people like me, people who decades ago who were bright and young, and who did produce ideas that … well, fuck that. Water under the bridge; spilt milk; a penny saved is a penny earned; the chicken crossed the road, obviously, to get to the other side.

But there is an unspoken hope in what Misha says, that the renewed interest of the bright and young, and the corners being revisited by the dim and old, will lead to advances that will in no way mar the status quo. Misha doesn’t want upheaval, and only a modicum of disruption.

Sabine bemoans 50 years of stagnation. Misha would probably make that 46 years. He says:

Approximately at the same time, after the discovery of the c quark and τ lepton, the Glashow-Weinberg-Salam model of electroweak interactions evolved in the Standard Model. This was the triumph of HEP, a success achieved because theory and experiment went hand in hand with each other being powered by each other. A remarkably thorough understanding of empiric data accumulated by this time was achieved. Theorists worked with joy and enthusiasm, all disconnected pieces suddenly came together and – within a decade – conceptual questions on strong and electroweak interactions were understood and answered. I was lucky that my professional career started in 1973. Till now I vividly remember the stormy days of the “November revolution” in 1974. The few months following the discovery of J/ψ were the star days of QCD and probably the highest emotional peak in my career.

I was a youngish graduate student at the time, frequently attending colloquia in the many Boston area universities. TP was exciting. I personally was excited by the work of Gürsey and Günaydin at Yale, little realizing that it would shortly be sidelined, along with the career hopes of any who became obsessed with that seminal work. Of course, at the time no one realized – because it was unthinkable – that TP was about to enter several decades of “healthy speculation” that would lead to nothing. The party was over; everything was sidelined, even things that got, and continue to get, lots of attention. Misha continues:

… the minimal supersymmetric standard model (MSSM) no longer seems relevant, as well as the very idea of low-energy supersymmetry which was put forward to solve the hierarchy problem. Basically, experimental data from CERN (or, better to say, their absence) ruled MSSM out. The concept of naturalness seemingly lost its appeal.

(As a graduate student I was pressured to become one with the body of supersymmetry theorists. However, resistance being then not futile, I chose my own path, a path that avoided what Misha avers was a dead end. So that’s good. Right?)

Misha carries on:

With increasing complexity of experiments and the need for more and more public funding it seems natural that the ratio exp/th would continue to fall in the near future. The peak on the right may well be shrinking for a while, while the peak on the left is growing unconstrained by rigors of nature. This is a new scientific environment to which we, the physicists, will have to adapt, as it usually happens in nature, through self-regulation. In the same way humankind adapts to new political and social conditions. In response to environmental changes populations grow or shrink. Theorists in their community are subject to the same social regularities.

I understand that uncovering the fundamental laws of nature became harder due to scarcity of adequate probes for experimentation. Does it mean that we have to give up right now?

Yikes. He then talks about someone named Dawid who has ideas of which I was ignorant, and I wish to continue in this blissful state:

According to Dawid, three principles of non-empirical confirmation are to replace experimental data/observations:

(i) The absence of alternatives in the community;

(ii) The degree to which a theory is connected to already confirmed theories (also referred to as meta-induction);

(iii) The amount of unexpected insights that the candidate “non-empirically confirmed” theory gives rise to.

With all due respect I strongly disagree with Richard Dawid and all supporting speakers at the conference and beyond. David Gross suggested a reconciling compromise. Here is a brief paraphrase of one of his statements: “It is only theories which need experimental confirmation, frameworks do not. The Standard Model is a theory, and it was triumphantly confirmed. But QM, QFT and ST are frameworks, not theories, they need not be confirmed in the usual way. With regards to frameworks, Dawid’s criteria (i), (ii), and (iii) should be applied.”

Oh, crap. See, the point is we now live in very uninteresting times, which is good for farmers and merchants, including merchants of staid dogma like Gross and his ilk. But the bigger point that many are now making, in the absence of disruptive results from the LHC, and the exorbitant cost of improving on that machine (and even if we did, we’d use it to check the validity of tired old ideas, like sparticles) … anyway, the big point, if I allow myself to get to it, is that these uninteresting times could well stretch into the foreseeable future, up to and encompassing whatever dystopia awaits us, at which point all funding will turn to survival, war, and fighting off zombies.

Pride and Prejudice

The Passing

A few days ago, having heard nothing since August, 2019, from my good friend, frequent correspondent re all things mathematical physics (MP), dreamer, and really good guy, Tony Smith, I googled his name. It is now mid-December, 2019. At the top of my search results was what I had long dreaded: Tony was no more. I sent an email notifying MP acquaintances that I thought ought to be told. I heard back from one (Carlos Castro), who expressed sorrow at his passing. And that is in part what I want to write about: why did no one else seem to care? Here is my email:

Opinions varied,

but I am deeply saddened.  His spirit was brilliant, inventive – sometimes too much, if that is even possible.  I am certain that in the end he left convinced that his core ideas in physics were fundamentally correct.  As frustrating as he sometimes was, I am glad he continued to be unconvinced by my arguments that recognition was impossible, that the mainstream had no interest in novelty of this sort.  I wish I had been able to understand it better, but it always seemed just out of my grasp, and sometimes, because of his encyclopedic knowledge, much further from my grasp.  

The universe is a smaller place without him.  

My universe …

High School Metaphor

Imagine you’re back in high school – or whatever school you’d attended as a 16 year old. Naturally, like all your classmates, you can not help but be obsessed with your reputation. You dread being an object of ridicule, a thing that can result from your own behavior, but as well from the behavior of friends and associates. Should their behavior be deemed embarrassing, they – along with any who abide their mortifying habits – may at most be deemed anathema, but at least eschewed. Sadly, you are at this point in your life unaware that these all too human attitudes will never fade, unless you become a hermit and can avoid self loathing.

So, anyway, there you are in high school, and you’ve befriended a brilliant, super nice classmate, who also has Tourette’s syndrome:

It involves uncontrollable repetitive movements or unwanted sounds (tics), such as repeatedly blinking the eyes, shrugging shoulders, or blurting out offensive words.

Most of your classmates, fearing the effect forbearance might have, will avoid this individual, and perhaps ridicule them if need be. You might – and ought to – feel contrite for sharing this attitude. Shame on you.

Anyway, Tony had a kind of intellectual Tourette’s. My wife, who met Tony over 20 years ago, and felt he was a wonderful person, liked my “intellectual Tourette’s” metaphor (is it a metaphor if it’s just true?). She has a dear friend n South Africa, a scientist of a very different sort, for whom the intellectual Tourette’s label could definitely be used. She says that his ideas are 10% brilliant, which is the reason he is put up with. As to the other 90%, well, they’re questionable. But the population of researchers in his field is much smaller than in MP, so it is much easier to put in the time and effort to assess his ideas, separating the wheat from the chaff. And it is not a science that advances rapidly, nor is it expected to. Even so, as was true of Tony, things were made much more difficult by his habit of repeatedly putting forth ideas in preliminary form.

I myself am prone to behaviors that make many people chary of admitting too close an association with me, of even referencing my work in their work when it is clearly warranted. This blog you are reading is not helping matters; quite the contrary, I suspect. But although still alive, nothing I do at this late point in my life is likely to improve my reputation, so fuck it. The joints don’t work as they once did, and I am nothing like as spry as I once was, but age has its benefits. You spend your life as a caterpillar, mindlessly munching leaves and in all ways leading a life dictated by your DNA, and then, if you’re lucky, you reach an advanced age, go briefly into a cocoon, and emerge as a happy, playful Labrador retriever.

Or, if you’re unlucky, you continue to crave recognition from the caterpillars, and if you’re really unlucky, you take that craving to the grave.

Correspondence

Just this morning I went to my old Apple laptop to peruse over 15 years of emails from and to Tony. I started in 2013 (as far back as I could), got to the end of 2014, then jumped to 2019, just two months before his death, and worked backward about a year. (There was almost no intimation in any of the most recent emails of his failing health, although others closer to him knew.) I was only a bit surprised by how similar our earlier exchanges were to those that came just a few months ago. Tony was very stubborn, periodically admitting that attitudinal change was needed, but then reverting … no, that’s not the right word. Reverting implies a change was made, but it did not stick. I don’t believe, despite whatever transient lip service he may have given to my exhortations, that he ever actually changed.

I wish I could see earlier emails, for the ones I have date back to the end of my off-and-on career as a developer of interactive web content, after which I retired from the workaday world. I was initially apprehensive about what effect that might have on me, but then discovering after less than two days unemployed that it was the perfect life for me. I had become Bertie Wooster, one of my favorite fictional characters. By then my last (and proudest) research paper had been published and archived, and I would never write another (although I would publish another based on earlier work, but only because a paper was requested, and this one was perfect for the intended purpose and journal).

So at the time of those earliest of my saved emails my obsession with my MP work was fading rapidly, and I redirected my creative energies into writing travelogues. It felt good. It was fun. I started exhorting Tony to stop obsessing over the reception of his work by the mainstream, which was limited, and occasionally antagonistic,. I was done; he was 6 years my senior; why could he not relax and accept the inevitable? More than once I suggested he go outside and play. Well, it’s complicated, and my understanding is incomplete.

I Read A Lot

I mentioned a book by Robert Hermann to Tony earlier this year. He immediately responded with some cogent comments on the book, indicating deep familiarity. I asked him how he knew the things he knew, which went way beyond things I knew.

As to the problem of how I know stuff about Hermann’s books etc the answer is simple:

                                          I read   (a LOT)

Klee Irwin asked one of his physics PhD people (Marcelo Amaral) to read my model and evaluate it. Marcelo said that I put together a lot of complicated things and it is hard enough to understand just some of the things, but putting them all together is just too hard.

For me it is not so hard because I read a LOT and after you read a LOT of things you begin to notice that parts of each thing in the LOT fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

There is a threshold where if you read enough to get there then all of a sudden a LOT of things become clearly interrelated.

It is like learning a new language by immersion – for a while everything is confusing noise with only a few phrases being clear – but after a threshold of exposure – BANG = verbal diarrhea.

Nobody else makes models like mine because nobody else reads a LOT to get to the threshold. Everybody else sees something interesting as a separate stand-alone thing with which they become obsessed and they stop expanding their view.

Klee sees tetrahedra and QiuasiCrystals;

Schwinger saw sources as finite-volume regions of spacetime but did not see their group structure;

Wyler saw the group structure but did not connect it to sources = Standard Model particles;

Finkelstein saw the underlying Clifford Algebra of Spacetime and Gravity but did not have a feel for the Standard Model;  

LIsi started with Clifford Algebra but went to E8 and did not appreciate that E8 was only part of Cl(16) so he missed how to get Bohm Quantum Theory from the TriVectors;

Furey gets C and O but does not see how the Division Algebras all work together;

… etc …

Further, superstring people (Witten, Arkani-Hamed, Gross, Weinberg, … and their followers like Lubos) are so bogged down in useless abstraction that it is hopeless for them to make contact with real physics.

His knowledge of the vast arcana of MP served him well early on. People listened, and understood that Tony knew a hell of a lot. He offered the occasional comment on Peter’s blog, generally accepted as intelligent and relevant; John Baez in the past thought him a fount of knowledge, and exchanged respectful emails.

Tony read a lot, and in MP he made connections of disparate concepts that had not been previously connected. But he didn’t read just material relevant to MP; he read a lot of everything, and at some point, for some reason, he began connecting concepts in MP to things that would necessarily give your average mainstream theorist the heebie jeebies.

Pariah

I suggested that his MP obsession could occasionally be likened to a hamster in a wheel. That he saw some justice in this was immaterial; he would not change. And things took a turn for the strange – or so I thought. In early 2019 he wrote:

However, there is another aspect of my hamster wheel that has some positive aspects:

Over the past 2-3 years, despite being 74-77 years old, my curiosity has led me to see new aspects of my Clifford Algebra physics, things that have been totally new to me:

Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue corresponds closely to my Cl(16) Physics model and to the history of our universe – like Terence McKenna’s TimeWave.

Rudolf Steiner’s Geisteswissenschaft has as nice a correspondence as does Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue.

Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass corresponds even more closely to Cl(16) Physics than I had ever thought in earlier years.

Penrose-Hameroff microtubules correspond to Cl(16) cells in a Lorentz-Leech-Lattice Spacetime.

Julian Schwinger’s Sources describe Elementary Particles in a very useful way (using Geometry that David Gross hates enough to have destroyed the career (? and life ?) of Armand Wyler).

The shell structure of Palladium atoms permits Deuterium Cold Fusion by Klein Paradox Quantum Tunneling – I have actually had nice email  with Tatsumi Hioki who is working along those lines at Nagoya and if my health were better I might get invited there for discussion.

Those new insights give me the same sort of high I used to get from playing in Gulf of Mexico surf (but now my heart is not up to such things) and I guess my challenge is how to keep on getting new insights while getting off the Apply-Rejection wheel.

The hardest part (since David Finkelstein died) is finding anyone around here with whom I can talk about such things.

Well before this time, in 2002, Tony was blacklisted by people at Cornell “from being registered as an author in the arxiv.org e-print archives.” A law suit ensued, one not – never – destined to succeed. If you’re interested, information on this can be found online, at least for now. I have little idea how long one’s online presence survives in the absence of the creator.

I did not follow the saga of this story very carefully. I had never had any trouble posting my work on the arxiv – at least then. (Whenever my thoughts on the work of others was sought, my go-to piece of advice was often this: Make your mathematics unassailable; Make its interpretation (to physics) as unavoidable as possible.) Over a decade later I presented at a conference what I felt – and still feel – is my most important paper, my pièce de résistance. The arxiv gatekeepers rejected it on the grounds that it was too similar to my previous work. As it offered a solution to one of the five biggest unsolved problems in particle physics, I was more than a little taken aback. Once publish in the conference proceedings, however, the arxiv relented and posted it, but in their gen-ph area, not the more highly respected hep-th. This is their way of marginalizing content they feel doesn’t belong.

About this time Luis Ignacio Reyes-Galindo, at the time at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Wales, was putting together an excellent article on the arxiv gatekeeping practices. I was contacted by Luis at the suggestion of John Baez, who was aware of my recent contretemps with the arxiv gatekeepers. If you’re interested, I am given the pseudonym Sisyphus (in the first version I believe I was Pythagoras).

Sadly, I do not believe Tony was ever contacted by Luis. His travails were ancient history, and by the 2010s Tony had rather thoroughly become a pariah to the mainstream, doomed to spend his final years where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. He craved dialogue, but over the last decade he increasingly began to introduce connections of his work to things and ideas that left many at a minimum nonplussed. And many of them, failing to persuade him to curtail this sort of extramundane musing, cut off ties with him, increasing his isolation. But a few, myself included, refused to give up on this great, and increasingly seraphic, mind and spirit. I personally found some of his pronouncements disconcerting, and more than once advised him to be more realistic, to curtail what he surely realized were unusual and off putting ideas and connections; to surrender his eternal optimism that if he could just find a sympathetic venue for his work, it might achieve some measure of recognition.

He had the habit of applying for things – grants and positions and such – which I felt were generally intended for much younger and more conservative researchers. I never advised against such sanguine pursuits – not specifically – but did suggest that he might find more peace in his life if he recognized that recognition would not happen in his lifetime, and that this was not his fault, but rather lay with humanity in general, those “poorly programmed mushy bags of DNA”. Meanwhile he should relax, be at peace, and go out and play. He responded in February, 2019, less than a year before his death.

Your analysis leads to the conclusion that I should go play for the rest of my life and not try to present my work to anyone other than myself, and I agree and will try to do that from here on out

with 2 caveats:

1 – You say that I should “… present… a derivation of, say, all particle masses based on sound mathematics …”.

I have done that for years, by extending Wyler’s work to the strong and weak forces combined with simple combinatorics for the second and third generations.

The soundness of the Wyler mathematics has been attested to by Carlos Castro and Gustavo Gonzalez-Martin of Universidad Simon Bolivar, Caracas, Venezuela.

However, their analyses have been as ignored as mine and Wyler’s (they are hispanic and not part of the consensus establishment) but their work makes it clear to me that the problem is not with soundness of math.

2 – You say that I should not have “… connections to things like African divination …”. Years ago John Baez told me the same thing, and I will repeat what I said to him:

It would be disgracefully dishonest for me to disown what is to me a major source of inspiration.

I would rather watch the consensus people wallow in ignorance forever than to allow them to claim that they invented the true TOE.

The record of European (Greek-Roman-British Empire) stealing credit for African ideas is well documented by the works of Gerald Massey.

Tony

PS – As to Girls Last Tour – if it or its author is suicidal then I do not need to get into it. From what  the web says of the Manga ending it seems as though they die without either clear victory or defeat with respect to their life goals.

Failure + Obstinacy = Success

So, yes, I failed. To the best of my knowledge he did not “go out and play”, but continued to obsess. Here is one of our last exchanges:

Tony: When Armand Wyler got some public notice for his fine structure and proton / electron calculations in Physics Today, David Gross went Ape-Shit crazy attacking Wyler and his approach, characterizing it as mere numerological coincidence and scaring everybody who hoped for establishment careers away from anything to do with Wyler.

Me: I remember when this stuff first made a minor wave and Wyler was invited to spend time at Harvard.  I remember being aware when that ended, and it having something to do with the mainstream rejection of his ideas.  But I never knew enough about it to get excited.  I am not surprised to learn that it died beneath the bile of a major establishment player.

[This found online, possibly in Nature: “Swiss mathematician Armand Wyler … tragically … went mad soon after completing this work and was institutionalized”.]

Tony: I did write letters to the editor of Physics Today defending Wyler and criticizing Gross, but that went about as I should have expected. When I pointed out specific errors in Gross’s statements about Wyler’s equations the Physics Today editors allowed Gross to make corrections as though it were just typographical and then they required that those portions of my letter to Physics Today be deleted.

Me: Fuck.

Tony: It is true that Carlos and a few others also did the sensible sane world calculations (they were all in the Hispanic world which is not so fearful of the Anglo world authoritarians), but they too were ignored and as far as I know Wyler remained back in his home town Zurich in a mental institution.

Me: For many years I have been convinced that immersive obsession in the arcane ideas of theoretical physics and mathematics can drive many people over the edge.  BBC did a good two episode series about that.  [Episode 1: Dangerous Knowledge] And it’s why I backed away from immersive work.  I am 100% positive that I would just be another largely unknown institutionalized statistic.  I’d rather go out and play …

[I mentioned to Tony that I would not be attending the next Denver conference on nonassociative mathematics stuff as I felt I’d be too old, and had nothing new to offer.]

Tony: As to your being 73 when the next nonassociatve conference occurs, I am already 77 nearing 78 so I see you as still young and vigourous. Exactly when and where will it be?

That was his way of suggesting I stop playing outside, and to come back inside and get to work.

And that’s about all I can write. There is a great deal of material online. He was a marvelous human.

I do not view Tony’s unwillingness to follow my advice a failure. Well, I failed, but he did not – not in the way that mattered. He did not surrender, and he died on his own terms, in his own home, as sane as any if us.

Bog of Despair

I despair. However, to be frank, when it comes to theoretical physics (TP) I began to despair about 50 years ago. So it’s nothing new. And, in fact, nowadays it doesn’t bother me too much. Despair is like a lukewarm bath suffused with epsom salts – swelling is reduced; muscles relaxed.

It’s my own fault, really. I continue to monitor the end-of-days blather about the sorry state of TP, mostly following Peter’s blog, but a lot from hyped up stories online from the popular press.

The latest brouhaha arose from an article in Quanta Magazine entitled Why the Laws of Physics Are Inevitable. (Quanta Magazine, you may recall, last year published an article entitled The Peculiar Math That Could Underlie the Laws of Nature. The Peculiar Math the article article refers to is an algebra (T = C ⊗ H ⊗ O) I began using some 40 years ago to explain stuff in particle physics. However, the focus of the article was a talented young woman (Cohl Furey … probably … she has a tendency to change that moniker from time to time) who began to exploit this algebra in her own work some 10 or more years ago. For reasons that remain not at all mysterious to me, while seminal work with this algebra was attributed to me, the article basically all but killed me off in the early 1980s, a decade before my first book on the subject, and over 35 years before before my second. From this I conclude that I may be a zombie. You might want to put on a helmet to protect your brain if you plan to read further.)

Anyhum, this recent Quanta Magazine article gave rise to much righteous spluttering, its title leaving one little alternative. Spluttering was called for. Part of Peter’s response was a very cogent summation of how we got to where we are, mentioning how Lie group representations had been used in conjunction with analytical methods, including QFT, to exclude a lot of things that were thought not to be a part of our universe’s description. Well, if you know anything about my work (ok, right, you don’t, but never mind), you’d not be surprised to discover that I offered my own comment on this (which, as is true of many of my comments, was rejected; I understand why, so no hard feelings):

DB wonders “when everyone in that world will acknowledge that they’re totally stuck”, etc. I wonder if the problem is “the world” is not really stuck enough. The QFT/representation theory playground is a messy morass that allows too much freedom to wallow without clear direction. Try: if fail, try again; if success, lock in place. Repeat.

IMħO, if “representation theory” is an integral part of your theoretical tool chest, then you’re working from a blueprint that is far too loose and unconstrained. Representations should be forced by the blueprint, along with much else that is presently achieved by trial and error.

This critique arises from my own blueprint (T = C ⊗ H ⊗ O), from which, in particular, all the Lie groups and representations that the Standard Model exploits arise naturally. There is no room to test other groups or representations, so the morass is made considerably less messy. (However, I was labeled a crackpot in a blog following the Quanta Magazine article on the subject. That word, “crackpot”, was used several hundred times (just an impression; that number may be wrong) in the blog (the first of two), mostly aimed at Cohl, but also liberally slathered on myself, as well as Gürsey and Günaydin, whose work at Yale on applying the octonion algebra in TP predates mine by several years. In that blog I learned that I am not Lance Dixon, so it wasn’t entirely without merit, for this was previously a source of some confusion for me.)

Ok, ok. Where was I? Oh, right, TP end times. One of Peter’s commenters posted this:

I listened to a sobering piece on NPR this weekend (Living Lab, you can look it up). The subject was “Planck’s Principle”, i.e., roughly, “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

Someone actually attempted to test this notion with some rigor. The field was bio-medicine, but there likely are implications for other fields.

The conclusions were actually worse than Planck thought: Even if a Superstar scientist dies, their proteges keep up the rear-guard, stifling progress about as effectively. It’s not enough for the ossified to die off. You’ve got to worry about all the people still around who agree with them.

Seems relevant to Multiverse Madness and its otherwise inexplicable staying power.

(Multiverse Madness? I offered this photographic evidence in support of the notion that it is not madness at all:

Well, that was a very grownup non sequitur.)

So, yeah, in Planck’s day one could point to a couple of prominent examples of Kuhnian paradigm shifts that were in part able to shift because of a few funerals. The efficacy of these funerals in shifting paradigms was helped in no small measure by the small population of hidebound resistors. Add to this a not significantly lesser number of supporters of some new paradigm, increasingly backed up by persuasive experimental results, and there you have it. What? What do you have?

Well, you don’t have something even remotely able to be replicated today. The same number of supporters of some new paradigm today would be vastly outnumbered by the old guard – orders of magnitude. And as to experimental results, they are presently millions of times more expensive, and are prone to give results intended to support old guard ideas – which they haven’t, so there’s an end to that. No one is going to suggest the machines be retooled to investigate some new paradigm. Even I wouldn’t suggest that. There are just too many alternative paradigms, each with a supporter who wants to be Einstein, not Minkowski or Eddington.

Meanwhile the mainstream bloggers give lip service to TP end times, and the need for a catastrophic change of state, but heaven forfend that it exploit any but tried and trusted tools, and comfortable paradigms.

Another of Peter’s commenters:

I understand that the idea of continual scientific progress has always been understood to be problematic. But what I’m referring to is something different than the Kuhnian “normal science” leads to “crisis” leads to “revolutionary science” and then “paradigm shift”, which is a model of progress with forward jumps.

What if the “crisis” of no progress goes on so long that the field loses its best people and instead attracts those happy with a bogus “revolution”, one that is not in any sense progress? As far as I know Kuhn or Kuhnians haven’t looked at this possibility, which may describe where we are now.

Sigh. Well, I gain some solace from the computer games to which I’m presently addicted. While comments made here will be lost, “like tears in rain”, in a computer game my daily efforts to effect change are actually awarded. And the NPCs are virtual, not poorly programmed mushy bags of DNA.

Tacit Prediction

So, the grownup TP (theoretical physics) community – a community to which, I confess, I do not belong – is all a dither about impending cuts to federal spending on “speculative” TP. (Incidentally, while some might argue I should not be counted a member of any TP community, I myself simply meant that I am not sufficiently grownup to be counted a member of that slightly more exclusive group.) Peter’s take on the situation can be found here. Peter quotes a study:

The situation is becoming increasingly unstable.

University-based theory is suffering its most serious crisis in decades.

Its future is in jeopardy.

Sabine comments (as usual, pleasantly caustic):

As I have tried to tell particle physicists for 5 years or so, even the dumbest politician will eventually see that they don’t live up to the promises they’ve been making …

I offered my own comment, inspired by Sabine’s:

Sabine’s statement concerning “even the dumbest politician” has me confused. I was unaware that a lower bound had ever been established. 

As to me personally, I was fearing all this might mean cuts to my research funding of 50 to 90%, but then I did the math and determined in either case it would result in no change. :-))

Alas, not being a grownup, I find it hard constructing comments that make the cut, and this little nugget was deemed to be pyrite, and so dismissed.

Anyway, speculative TP has a history of funding woes as long as the field itself. Decades ago I remember attending a colloquium at Harvard given by a prominent younger member of their particle physics group. At the time the relevance of TP was under question, and spending cuts were feared in the offing. The subject of the talk was on the potential to use neutrinos to find oil deposits. Gosh. That certainly has the verisimilitude of relevance. Of course, nothing ever came of this, and no one in the audience – and probably the speaker himself – took the suggestion seriously.

Some time after this, during my years as a perennial slave … oh, I mean, adjunct … the Texas based SSC was cancelled. At the time this had a direct effect on my life. One of the professors at one of the many universities at which I was adjuncting was relying on SSC funding. When it evaporated I lost one of my courses to said prof.

And that’s a point made in Peter’s blog. Not about me personally, mind, but that it’s the little people who suffer the most immediate effects of money evaporation. In this present case, “little people” refers to speculative TP-ers at all but elite universities.

Do I care? Not so much. Fearing adjuncting would lead to a life in retirement sleeping in a cardboard box under a bridge, I eventually quit and ended my professional life as a web developer. So I’ve already been there, and done that.

Hell, in one of the last physics conferences I attended I was introduced prior to my talk as “the maverick”. This shocked me a trifle, but not being a grownup I was largely clueless as to how I was perceived by the larger TP community. (Still, “maverick” is better than “contrarian”, a more dismissive term I recently encountered online in reference to, well, people with thoughts on TP that are contrary to the mainstream.) So, anyway, my life on the fringes of TP has instilled in me a deep seated desire to see pruning shears applied liberally to mainstream TP. Indeed, one of Peter’s commenters suggested that funding cuts are long overdue:

Theoretical HEP is in failure mode and deserves its funding cut. Period. Full stop.

You know, as a TP maverick, one of many whose ideas are at variance with the mainstream, it occurs to me that the present funding fears are a tacit prediction of my work, and the work of anyone whose TP models bring into question the value of highly funded speculative TP. Sadly, verification of this tacit prediction is insufficiently focused to do contrarians much good, as they are likely being viewed by the powers that be no less leerily – probably much more leerily – than your average elite university string theorist.

Which reminds me: the Boston Area Physics Calendar, to which I subscribe, has in recent times had a dearth of string related talks listed. Unsurprisingly, quantum computing, which “even the dumbest politician” has come to view as in the national interest, now dominates listed TP talks. Or such is my impression. You should check with grownups for verification.

Bread and Circuses

Ground State

In need of a possibly trite metaphor for the human intellectual condition, but wanting it to be accurate, I googled “low energy state”. This came up at the top, probably a wiki:

“The lowest energy state an atom can be at is called its ground state. When an electron in an atom has absorbed energy it is said to be in an excited state. An excited atom is unstable and tends to rearrange itself to return to its lowest energy state.”

Applied to theoretical physics (TP) the lowest energy state is blind acceptance of the status quo – or at least that’s what I originally wrote. It’s not quite right, though. That word “blind” is wrong, methinks. “Willing” is more apropos – or even “eager”. The vast majority of individuals who’ve made careers in physics, while relishing stories of the disruptors of the past, are largely indifferent to disruption in the present, and occasionally aggressively against it. The lowest energy state is where security lies.

Of course, too much stability and there is a risk that funding may dry up. But excitement can be generated by a kind of scientific yellow journalism.

“The Universe Might Be a Giant Loop”

“Is a New Particle Changing the Fate of the Universe?”

“Even In A Quantum Universe, Space And Time Might Be Continuous, Not Discrete”

“Quantum physics: our study suggests objective reality doesn’t exist”

“A Link Between Dark Matter and Antimatter Could Be Why the Universe Exists”

These are actual titles of pop-sci articles strewn about the internet. Such titles often end in a question mark, or have one or more of the conditional words, “might”, “may”, “could”, etc. The titles are clickbait. My favorite type of clickbait title begins with words similar to these: “Scientists now believe [something moderately outrageous].” My first reaction – the reaction the title is intended to elicit – is, “Really?” And for a brief flash I am filled with self doubt, wondering how I missed word of this revelatory story. But wait a minute. What does “scientists” mean? It’s plural, so accepting the story’s accuracy the number of scientists sharing the moderately outrageous idea is greater than or equal to two, and less than or equal to the number of all scientists. The impression generated, in the absence of specificity, is that the number is close to all, which is a big deal. But it rarely if ever is nearly all. It’s usually two or three researchers who were overheard postulating something outrageous while sitting at a bar in an advanced state of inebriation – which is another metaphor.

Anyway, while I have nothing against a bunch of brainy folk having job security, I’m also a big fan of intellectual disruption. For several decades the ground state of TP was string theory. That ground state would have been cemented in place for many more decades, if not centuries, had the LHC found any evidence for anything SUSY related, but alas, it did not. Absence of evidence is not really disruption though. Had there been evidence of anything else, something requiring new ways of thinking, well, that might have boosted the atom to a higher energy state. Still, in finding nothing, the notion that there likely are higher energy states has not been precluded.

The Disruptor Meme

Disruption in TP can in fact negatively impact funding and careers, unless you are the disruptor, and you are already a member in high standing of the TP ecclesiastical bureaucracy. You know, I saw an article recently about the last scientist who knew everything. It doesn’t matter who the article’s author thought this person was, but the idea that things have now gone well beyond what any individual can mentally encompass is a valid one. There will be no more Swiss patent clerks overturning tired ideas, although many people – myself included – would love to be that. Some 50 years later, though, the illusion/delusion on my part has largely dissipated. It’s not all – or even mostly – my fault. I still believe in the core value of my body of work. But no matter.

What reputation I still have is that of an obstinate maverick. I am occasionally sent links to new articles by authors who want feedback on their potentially disruptive ideas. Their thought is: you (me) have been writing counterculture physics articles for decades, so your (my) sympathy is assured. The message I get from most of these is: your (my) work is counterculture, but let’s ignore it entirely and look at mine, which is different and unrelated to yours (mine, again). Your (my) feedback is requested.

The problem is, I believe with every fibre in my mind and body that my work is fundamentally correct, and that there are not many truths, but just one; so if your (not my) work is not building on mine, then, frankly my dear, …

The Wall

A couple days ago I encountered an online article about philosophers who believe there are limits to what we as a species can achieve intellectually. I quote:

“‘Mysterian’ thinkers give a prominent role to biological arguments and analogies. In his 1983 landmark book The Modularity of Mind, the late philosopher Jerry Fodor claimed that there are bound to be ‘thoughts that we are unequipped to think’.

“Similarly, the philosopher Colin McGinn has argued in a series of books and articles that all minds suffer from ‘cognitive closure’ with respect to certain problems. Just as dogs or cats will never understand prime numbers, human brains must be closed off from some of the world’s wonders. McGinn suspects that the reason why philosophical conundrums such as the mind/body problem – how physical processes in our brain give rise to consciousness – prove to be intractable is that their true solutions are simply inaccessible.”

So, yeah. But never mind that mind/body stuff; the idea also applies to TP. I must relate a quick anecdote. In my youth, full of a kind of boundless and obstinate enthusiasm stemming from a deep well of hubris, I visited a professor at Dartmouth to tell him about my burgeoning division algebra ideas. He shared a thought with me, that there may be limits to what humanity can achieve in TP. Did I mention the deep well of hubris? Yes, I see I did. Anyway, some time later I encountered him again, and I remembered some time in the past that someone had suggested there may be limits to what we can achieve in TP, an idea that my youthful arrogance totally dismissed, and I told him so. His reaction led my memory cells to the unfortunate recollection that he had been the one to share that opinion with me. Idiot! Me; not him.

Ok, let’s accept that there is a species specific TP wall, and we are close to it. The problem is, rather than admit that some mainstream idea shared by the ruling elite and their minions is wrong, this body of individuals has a vested interest in proclaiming the wall reached before it actually is … at least from an intellectual perspective. From a sociological perspective, maybe they’d not be wrong. If the ruling collective refuses to consider heretical ideas, then a wall – not the wall, just a wall – will have been reached. Happiness will ensue as we slide back to the ground state, a soup of exoplanets, dark matter speculation, and multiverses. Bread and circuses.

Game of Arya

Before the Game of Thrones (GoT) became an international television sensation, and prior to the publication of books 4 and 5, a friend suggested I might like the then extant books.  I dipped into book 1 and quickly encountered a description of a wall of ice hundreds of feet high intended to protect people living to its south from some horror to its north.  The island (Westeros) upon which most of the GoT takes place has a shape and size similar to Great Britain’s, and the wall in GoT was placed roughly where Hadrian stuck his wall in GB.  Clearly, however, whatever lay to the north of GoT’s wall was more frightening than a bunch of obstreperous Scottish clans.  I don’t think we were told what it was, but I needed to find out.  I was hooked.  

Were this a conventional work of epic fantasy fiction, such as the Lord of the Rings (LotR), the introduction of a mature, strong, and somewhat heroic character would have led one to sit up and take notice, for the story arc clearly would involve this character … oops.  He’s dead.  Well, that was unexpected, but he has two fine strapping boys, the elder of whom would don the heroic mantle, with an added touch of motivating revenge thrown in to … WTF.  He’s dead, along with his charming fiancée, his mother, and a whole slew of kin.  

This Red Wedding, when it aired on TV, shocked a great many people who’d not read the books and were unprepared for the death of a character they’d assumed was being groomed to take a central role in the story, a la Aragorn in LotR.  I mean, he was of semi-royal blood, was strong, handsome, and his fiancée was gorgeous and of an exotic foreign extraction.  The elements were all there for an entertaining if conventional fantasy with a happy ending in a castle.  But then these elements went and got their throats cut.  Many viewers vowed never again to watch the show.  I doubt many stuck with that vow.  

Meanwhile I had become intrigued by two characters, neither of whom in a conventional fantasy tale would have played central roles (hobbits are an exception, I suppose).  One was the dwarf, Tyrion, a scion of the most powerful family on Westeros; and the other was the smallish daughter of the fellow who lost his head early on and thereby lost all chance of being central to the story, save as a source of vengeance.  The former, Tyrion, was intelligent and thoughtful, traits that endeared him to me despite his foibles.  The latter, Arya, was expected, like her elder sister, to behave dutifully, marry well, and so on.  But she was having none of it.  She was feisty, rebellious, wanted to learn to fight with weapons, and in general avoid ladylike gentility.  Her father was not unsympathetic, to his credit, but he carelessly lost his head early on and Arya’s life was shortly thereafter swept up in a storm of chaos.  

As the story continued (speaking mostly of the episodic TV show from now on), neither Tyrion nor Arya seemed like central characters, but I found episodes without them tedious.  The plot got ever more convoluted, and I cared less and less about the cast of conventional characters most of whom seemed intent on achieving the titular throne for themselves, or at least their clan.  And that throne was made from a bunch of swords welded together.  What?  Well, no accounting for taste.  

Speaking of convoluted, I did not read every word of books 4 and 5 (as I write this, expected books 6 and 7 have not been published).  Characters would appear, dominate a chapter, then disappear, never to reappear.  Still, amidst all the death and mayhem, Arya and Tyrion would occasionally bubble to the surface, and I was happy to read those bits.  And I developed a theory.  

The author of GoT (GRRM) is not physically heroic – more Beorn than Aragorn.  I suspected, with no real evidence, that he sympathized with Arya and Tyrion, and relished killing off, or in other ways discommoding, the pretty boys and girls who his audience kept expecting would achieve conventional hero status.  I commented on this idea on Facebook:

“If you’re not an outcast, deformed, or picked on, you are not safe.  Look at the author.  These books are revenge books against everyone who demeaned him in school.

“Anyone who seeks to rule, however pure their motives, and however good looking … Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad (or proud).  From the beginning my two fav characters were the outcasts, Tyrion and Arya.  I predict they will survive.”  

A Irish friend of mine took exception to my view.  She commented:

“Sometimes I worry about you. I think the airs too thin where you are at. Please descend to correct mental imbalance.”

Years later, the TV show now complete, she wrote again:

“You’re prediction was correct …”

I replied:

“I thought show was great.  I never had any interest in pretty boys and girls and their thirst for power.  Red Wedding left me unmoved.  Oh well, I’m thinking, now there are fewer people to distract show from Arya and Tyrion.  

“When Arya brilliantly stabbed Night King the show was basically over.  However, they needed 3 episodes to completely destroy Kings Landing, the Iron Throne, and Dany (dragon go bye bye).  Then an episode to select unlikely king, and show elites squabbling over what was more important, ships or brothels.  This exemplified how trivial elites are and always have been.  Arya heads west on a voyage of science and discovery.  Excellent.  Jon Snow, the eternally befuddled supposed hero (in eyes of 99% of viewers), heads north, ignoring Black Watch, to be with people who actually like him.  

“I mean, once threat from north done, only thing to do was to destroy everything almost everyone (but me) thought the show was about.”  

And that’s it.  Arya overcame so much – even herself – to become the person she became, the hero of the story, as I see it.  And the game?  It is the Game of Thrones, after all.

The game is enforced by our genes, which shapes our societal thinking.  In rebelling against society’s expectations, society takes the self-preserving step of marginalizing the rebel – removing the offending part from the game.  Arya did not fit all but a very few viewer’s expectations of the hero.  Small, female, and rebellious, she transcended every obstacle put in her way, while simultaneously learning from each, becoming greater from each.  In the end only her highly trained, savvy, and intense focus could have brought down the Ice King.  As for him, he was justifiably smug in the face of the conventional foes conventional society threw in his way.  He would have easily defeated them.  But Arya was something outside his experience, as a living man, and as a dead one, and she had talents of which he could never have had any familiarity.  

Arya could then have stayed in Westeros, a person revered by (almost) all.  But that notion did not interest her.  She’d spent a life learning all she needed to learn, and Westeros had nothing more to offer.  No one there knew what was to the west of Westeros across the sea.  No one had any interest.  But Arya did, and she left squabbling Westeros (including Tyrion, who does all right for himself in the end), and she sails to the west on a voyage of discovery, ever the maverick.  

The show’s ending was deeply dissatisfying to a majority of viewers, taking only 3 episodes to tidy up the stories of everyone else, including the last surviving pretty boy (referred to above as befuddled).  He wanders off to the north and out of history.  The throne gets melted down.  The two strongest female contenders to the iron throne die.  And even the great city in which the throne once rested was largely destroyed.  Basically everything and everybody about which the vast majority of viewers really wanted the story to be about, in the end, it’s all gone.  And my fav character, Arya, does the perfect thing at the end: she lets curiosity and a thirst for knowledge lead her away to new adventures.  

It is rumored the screen writers, in finishing a story whose literary version was never (will never – ought never – be) completed, well, to mollify upset viewers they confessed they had no clear idea where they were going.  Now they want to make a prequel, about a time before Arya was born.  Personally, in the absence of Arya, I just don’t give a damn.

Reality and Tools

Theoretical physicists are presently waiting impatiently for any kind of experimental clue that there is still something to explain – something significantly beyond the Standard Model.  In the recent past there have been some notable close calls.  I direct your attention to Sabine’s take on the diphoton anomaly in her book, Lost in Math, and this recent article in Quanta Mag.  In particular, the point of highlighting these two short-lived instances of giddy excitement is that not only did these ephemera give rise to hundreds of papers with ready explanations of false data, but the theoretical milieu in which the authors work and strive was able to give rise to such nonsense.  The reason for this is simple: that milieu lacks sufficient constraints to limit these potential Nobel prize winners’ theoretical ramblings.  

Ideally they ought to have been able to tell the experimentalists that they should recheck their results, for they are inconsistent with accepted and proven theoretical canon.  But this is not – and seems unlikely ever to become – the case.  

In my lifetime numerous Nobel Prizes have been awarded to people who realized that crazy noncommutative Lie groups could help explain the structure of reality.  This was initially a huge OMG moment for science, made all the more mind boggling when it was recognized that after 1 (U(1)) and 2 (SU(2)) comes 3 (SU(3)), and 3 also had a role to play.  Shortly after that some mathematician, presumably, pointed out to the celebrating physicists that the set of integers extends beyond 3.  And so the merry chase was on: SU(5); SO(8); SO(10); SO(32); E8; …  This was diphoton anomaly stuff on a majestic scale, stemming, of course, from the fact that no one understood where the first three groups came from, or why they worked.  So, having no architecture to limit their brilliance, off they went in a decades long chase after the next big thing (group).  They could console themselves that they were doing hard science, because it was hard, relying on QFT, where the T there stands for theory.  

In reality it isn’t a theory, though, is it?  It’s a tool, and one that is only vaguely understood (“shut up and compute”).  And it rests on a collection of quantum ideas whose meaning has defied over a century of deep philosophical blather.  Peter Woit’s blog is my favorite, but every time his latest screed touches on anything quantum the comments section blossoms into a rich weedy field of “No, you’re not thinking of it right; you want to think of it my way!” debate that can have no resolution, because evidently all ways of interpreting QM lead to the same real world conclusions – or at least those that get any attention.  

Still, if you want a career in physics the quantum road is paved in gold, especially now with quantum computing receiving so much attention, and Sky Net just around the corner.  As to me, well, I ignored all those road signs that indicated “Exit here for QFT and Career”.  As a graduate student every time I dabbled in QFT my spidey sense went crazy, warning me that immersion in its arcana would not take me where I wanted to go, which – although I did not realize this then, despite repeated warnings from the well-meaning – was not to a sinecure in academia.  

There’s nothing wrong with QFT (well, …), but it lacks rigidity.  It’s a tool.  SU(2) and SU(3) were ok, but nothing in the way we did (do) physics was up to the task of limiting further speculation along these lines.  Our theoretical foundation (TF) was powerful enough to say, well, if we want SU(5) then the proton should decay, and if it doesn’t (and it doesn’t) then we need to throw out SU(5).  But the TF wasn’t even remotely sufficiently constrained to preclude SU(5) from the outset.  And that’s because we never understood where the 1,2,3 came from in the first place, and as physicists (and not mathematicians) we didn’t concern ourselves with such issues.  We apply; we don’t explain.

Ok, so now let’s do a Gedanken Experiment a la Thanos (warning: you are not alive in this experiment; oh, and failure to connect with past and future pop-culture references is of no concern to me). With a snap of his gauntleted fingers all sentient life … oh, hell, let’s make it all life … throughout this or any universe is gone. Eradicated. There’s still matter, and said matter clumps into balls, and the surfaces of these balls are what we called 2-spheres (before our eradication). And it’s still true that if one of these 2-spheres were really really smooth and hard, with a one atom thick atmosphere of He, the motion of these He atoms (the planet’s wind) could not be everywhere nonzero (speed units unspecified, as no life exists to specify them). For a similar reason no grid could appear on the surface of the 2-sphere that did not have poles. Indeterminacy in one of the two dimensions at some position is certain.

For the 1-sphere (circle) this is not the case. We use degrees or radians to indicate position, and there are no indeterminate coordinates. Were this not the case the Fourier transform would be impossible, and quantum theory would cease to function.

But in a universe without life there would be no QM, or QFT, or hammers, and for much the same reason. They’re all tools. But there would still be parallelizable spheres (1-sphere), and nonparallelizable spheres (2-sphere), with real lifeless universe physical consequences in both cases. And it would still be true that of all possible n-spheres only those of dimension 1, 3, or 7 (and arguably 0) are parallelizable. These dimensions (and the associated 1, 2, 4, and 8) are what I call resonant. If we allow for the existence of one sentient creature (which for purely selfish reasons I choose to be me), then I would find dealing with this resonance easiest were I to develop algebra (a tool), and these algebras in particular: real, complex, quaternion, and octonion. And after a bit more solitary cogitation I discover the sequences of Lie groups: SO(n), SU(n), Sp(n), and a few exceptional groups, all associated with the respective division algebras. The list of mathematics that bubbles up from these algebras goes on, and try as I might I would find little of interest completely unconnected to these mathematical resonances.

And what of physics? Well, in my pocket I discover some notes on Dirac theory. Generalizing from that, I discover (predict): spinors constructed from T = CHO reduce to a family of quarks and leptons existing in my 1,3-dimensional universe; and there is a mirror universe dominated by the antiparticles of those fermions; and vector bosons arise from gauging what I’d call the Standard Symmetry which arises naturally from T-maths; and connecting the two mirror universes is a 6-dimensional space carrying SU(3) charges. Then, if I felt really bored, I might invent QFT with which to generate numbers. Or, I might not, as I suspect that there’s something wrong with it. No point getting carried away and risking yet another universe-wide eradication of all life, albeit at this point just me.